February 9, 2023

My stepfather passed away last spring, and I inherited his iPad. Since I didn’t reset the device, it contained Jeff’s old Facebook account, text messages and emails. It felt awkward, like I was walking around the house in his XXL cat tee and khakis. But I like having a place where I can go without being distracted by my phone’s notifications.

As I was reading the news on my iPad one evening, I noticed an app I hadn’t considered before: Photos. It’s been months since Jeff passed away, and while I’ve gone through his Gmail and Facebook messages (nothing to write about), I’ve overlooked this. I paused for about three seconds—wondering if I should ask Mom for permission first—and then I looked.

When a family member dies, surviving relatives routinely rummage through the attic for photo albums and memorabilia filled with old stories; Voicemails, emails, screenshots, to-do lists, social media accounts — including hidden ones.

We want to hear what others have learned about their family or friends based on the digital shards left behind when someone died. Share with us photos, emails, Facebook messages, draft notes, or other digital information you find and tell us what it taught you. (See table below.)

Like boxes in the attic, these digital messages contain stories about our loved ones that we may not know. After my grandfather died, my mother read his letters home from the Army during WWII and learned about his efforts to keep kosher during the war. The letters have always been there, but now they take on extra importance.

After our stepfather passed away, our family took out old photos of him to look at.Credit…Courtesy of Barbara Strauss

However, unlike the carefully curated photo albums and carefully written letters of the older generation, the digital fragments that are left now are often spontaneous and unedited.

My stepfather ended up very ill and spent most of his free time reading in bed before then, so many of his photos seem to be taken lying down. Through his photo app, I see a lot of pictures of feet. Many of the images look more like accidental screenshots than intentional photographs.

Feet, feet, feet, and bang—a series of close-ups of Jeff’s face, his head resting on a hospital bed. Did Jeff take a selfie in the hospital? In one, I swear I found a smile.

I keep going back. Most of the old photos include my mother or his cats, Basil and Oregano — Reggie for short. My mom never wanted to have much to do with the cats other than naming them. But Jeff kept staring at her, and every time Reggie climbed into her lap while she was watching a show or reading a magazine and my mother casually stroked him, Jeff would seize the moment.

There were also multiple collections over the years where my mother stood in the kitchen trying on clothes. I guess the pictures are forced and what is needed to keep the partner happy. But there are also some shot at their favorite lake in Maine. My mom sat in an Adirondack chair drawing wildflowers and Jeff captured her from every angle.

In another series, I discovered my children from many years ago. They look about 1 and 3 years old, in stocking pajamas. I can see Jeff’s belly in the photo, the boys playing on the floor in front of him. They looked up at Jeff with that twinkle in their eyes that children leave to their grandparents.

These photos gave me a glimpse of a moment my stepdad was with my kids without me knowing it. I was probably still in bed, asleep when it happened. It reminds me of all the other moments they have to share, just them.

If you would like to participate, please fill out this form. We plan to publish some of the responses in a future article about the digital debris left behind when someone dies. We will not publish any part of your submission without first contacting you. We may use your contact information to follow up with you.

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